Wednesday, 28 July 2010

World View: A visit to Merthyr Tydfil

“It’s much harder to write praise,” my neighbour recently told me, “than it is to moan about something being shit.”

I can only assume that she has never visited the Welsh town of Merthyr Tydfil.

Merthyr is situated at the foot of the Brecon Beacons National Park, the waterfalls, slopes and vistas of which have inspired artists and poets for generations. Site of a former ironworks and coal-mine, Merthyr is a proud pin in the map of Wales’ hard-working heritage. From most areas of Merthyr, you have a beautiful, awe-inspiring view.

So. Merthyr seems lovely, doesn’t it?

Well, it is. Compared with, ooh, say... late-eighties Chernobyl.

You see, whilst everything looks nice when you’re looking out,that’s only because you’re negating the unfortunate business of looking in. This makes Merthyr Tydfil a bit like Mickey Rourke: it can gaze longingly upon beauty all day, without ever having to witness the horrendous rotting carbuncle that is its own face. However, Mickey Rourke has had sex (video evidence for which can be found by utilising Google and a not-very-large leap of your imagination). Looking at the inhabitants of Merthyr, they’ve almost certainly never had sex. Not with someone who wasn’t trying to struggle free, anyway. We can only hope that – in an unlikely-but-devastating twist of budgeting – the authorities never erect a giant mirror outside the town. That Medusa thing would look like a picnic.

Actually that is incredibly unfair of me. It must be galling for the poor people who live here. When British industry had the carpet ripped out from underneath it in the 80s by a cackling Margaret Thatcher, we – the filofax-clutching English – effectively shat on them. We basically did a massive poo in the sky, and watched, holding our bellies and laughing until our heads ached, as it cascaded down onto their poor little Welsh heads. Walking through the still-crusty streets of Merthyr last night, my heart went out to each and every one of them. Right up until I saw a car stop and a giant ball of tracksuited female fury stomp over to a 15 year old scally and threaten to break his fingers. He was a “cunt”, apparently. In case you’re interested. I think it’d take me a little time to warm to her.

Rum locals aside, as it stands looks-wise, Merthyr is a disaster. On the drive into town, you surrender control of your face muscles as your brain contorts and squirms, trying desperately to unscramble the enormous juxtaposition between the peaceful beauty of the surrounding countryside and the sheer screaming horror of the Tydfilian architecture. I saw a decrepit old Nursing Home that was boarded from porch to parapet. Admittedly, the old folks might have been shipped off to a fancy new retirement village somewhere on the outskirts of town, but to me at that split second, it seemed like Merthyr wasn’t even somewhere where you’d be able to die in comfort. Instead you’d just expire in the corner of a dank concrete room. In the dark. Alone.
“Dad, is Granddad dead?”
“Well, it’s six months since we nailed over the windows, so I should think so by now, son. Yes.”

There have been attempts to modernise the place, at least. If by “modernise” I mean “concrete-over”. Which I do. Last night I stayed in a Travelodge in the centre of Merthyr Tydfil’s new ‘Leisure Park’ development. You know what a ‘Leisure Park’ is, right? It’s one of those massive carparks surrounded by gawdily-lit chain restaurants and a light infantry of bored-looking teenagers.
Basically, it’s about as “Leisure”-y as a long weekend in Helmand. You can count the number of trees on one finger, too, so calling it a “Park” is outrageous. It’s like trying to market Phil Collins as someone who has a full head of hair.

It was only as my companions and I left the Travelodge in search of food and trekked out across the tarmaced tundra that we really began to drink in the full widescreen horror that we had driven into. In the gently falling dusk the beautiful hills seemed to turn to shadowy ogres, and the surrounding glare of restaurant lighting made us feel less like we were in a Leisure Park and more like we were in the centre of a macabre, Tim Burton-esque Funfair. Each beam like a searchlight, each garish ‘SPECIAL OFFER!’ poster howling like the mad-eyed screech of a white-faced jester. We practically ran to Frankie & Bennies. I was sweating.

As for finding some praise? Well, I happen to like moderately-priced baked goods. And Merthyr Tydfil has two branches of Gregg’s.

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